When the White House called some of the nation's major law enforcement associations with a heads-up that the president would tap Jeh Johnson to run the Homeland Security Department, the response on the other end of the line was brief: Who?
The former Pentagon lawyer and longtime Barack Obama supporter is not a household name throughout the 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country — agencies that are considered among the Homeland Security Department's most important partners. So, nominating Johnson to run the sprawling bureaucracy, created in response to the 2001 terror attacks, came as a surprise to many.
"I don't know him. And I want to get to know him," said Bart Johnson, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and a former Homeland Security official.
"I couldn't have picked him out of a lineup with the Marx Brothers," said James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
By Friday afternoon, the White House had made their candidate available to some of the police executives for phone calls. And letters of support were promised two weeks after Obama announced his pick to run the cabinet level department. Getting this law enforcement support was critical for the White House, because the Homeland Security Department needs their cooperation for its mission to be carried out effectively.
The Homeland Security Department houses a large number of the federal government's law enforcement officers. Not only does it dole out billions of dollars in first responder grants to states each year, members of the department work side-by-side state and local law enforcement daily on counter-drug, counterterrorism, immigration, border security and cyber issues.
"You cannot secure America from inside the Beltway, and a Washington-based mindset and a Washington-centric operation can't do the job that needs to be done," said Tom Ridge, the department's first secretary, and a former congressman and governor from Pennsylvania. "I think it's absolutely critical to have them not only supportive of his nomination, but also very involved in the process."
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said he and other members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association spoke Friday with Johnson, who he didn't know before the phone call. After speaking with Johnson, Ramsey said the chiefs' concerns, including those about immigration and grant funding, were allayed. They were ready to publicly support the president's nominee.
"We've had great relationships with previous secretaries and we want to continue that," Ramsey said.
Since Obama announced his pick Oct. 18, law enforcement associations were anxious to meet with Johnson to understand what he knows about the department and homeland security issues. Once that happened, they said they would decide whether to pen letters of support, as many of these groups have done for the three other secretaries who were well-known among law enforcement when they were named to the post.
"We thought after four tries at this that they would see the value of a continued ongoing relationship with local law enforcement, and that the nominee would have some background and a local law enforcement perspective," said Rich Stanek, president of the Major County Sheriffs' Association.
Stanek said his group had nothing against Johnson. "We simply don't know him," he said.
Obama said he nominated Johnson because of his "deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States." He credited Johnson with helping design and implement policies to dismantle the core of the al-Qaida terror organization overseas and to repeal the ban on openly gay service members in the U.S. military.
Johnson had a two-year stint with the U.S. attorney's office in New York between 1989 and 1991, according to his law firm's website. He has defended the administration's targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas as well as the role of the U.S. spy court and crackdowns to keep government secrets secret. A multimillionaire lawyer, Johnson left the administration in 2012 as general counsel for the Defense Department and returned to private practice.
"He's been there in the Situation Room, at the table in moments of decision," Obama said last month.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has threatened to block Obama's nominations in a dispute over last year's attack in Benghazi, Libya, putting Johnson's nomination in limbo for now.
But it's widely expected that Johnson will be confirmed by the Senate — even Graham has said he will ultimately vote for him — making Johnson the nation's fourth Homeland Security secretary. He would replace former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who left to head the University of California system. The department is responsible for protecting the president, preparing for and responding to disasters, enforcing immigration laws and securing air travel. Its missions include counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and cyber security.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said Johnson's two years as a federal prosecutor made him a part of the law enforcement community and therefore he understands the importance of state and local law enforcement. Carper is chairman of the Senate committee that will oversee Johnson's nomination hearing.
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, said Johnson's experience at the Defense Department in counterterrorism and cyber will be good for homeland security. But McCaul, who had not heard of Johnson either before the president nominated him, is concerned about his law enforcement chops.
"He's relatively unknown and obscure," said McCaul, R-Texas, whose committee does not have a vote on Johnson's confirmation but it has a large oversight role of the department. "We don't just want a political hack lawyer in that position that's just going to be a yes man for the president."
Because Johnson is largely unknown among the law enforcement circles, McCaul said Johnson will have a lot to prove when he takes over the massive department.
As of Monday evening, the National Association of Police Organizations, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, the Major City Chiefs Association and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, had written letters in support of Johnson, urging the Senate to confirm him.
The Fraternal Order of Police said it plans to support the president's nominee, as well.
"The first in and last out are the local folks in any crisis," said Ridge, who regularly spoke with state and local law enforcement as Homeland Security secretary. "The last in and first out are the feds. So, who do you want to plan with?"